August is a popular time for farm visits and this year has been no exception. Our most recent one was a small reunion with two of my college roommates–George, whom I see all the time since he lives in the City, and Susie, visiting from California. The three of us lived together with several other friends in off-campus houses for two years some forty years ago. The natural and automatic way in which we fell back into mutual teasing and recreational arguing, though we at best are all together only once or twice a year, reminded me how much we really had become a family unit, by living together. Susie’s husband, John, and sister, Nina came as well, so she had her family of origin, her college family, and her family of choice together all in one place–quite a strong web of support. At that moment, it struck me how central these tight units of mutual loyalty are to the human condition. it was almost an imperative that we form an interim family when we left our families of origin for college, until we mated and settled into our families of choice after emerging into the adult world.
This process, I suppose, is not unlike our various flocks and herds, who, if not born here, have gradually come together on our Turkana Farms “campus,” and have fairly quickly evolved into social units with relationships that settle into patterns based on rank, affinity, or rivalry. In fact, the resemblance did not go unnoticed on the farm. The next morning, the entire farmstead was atwitter remarking on the strange flock that had descended on the place the day before. Vernon, our head boar, who had barely raised his head to look at us when we greeted him, Sweetie Pie, the rejected calf we’ve been bottle feeding, and Orhan, the aged wether who leads our flock of sheep, each commented on how much they had enjoyed observing the interactions of humans at play.
Each in their way seems to understand the importance of the family unit. Vernon, who appears to have fully recovered from injuries he suffered at the hands of a younger rival boar seeking supremacy, has begun feeling lonely in his safe recovery pen up by the house, and this week has been wandering to the back of the winter pig pasture where he can socialize, nosing through the fence, with his harem of sows in the adjacent summer pasture. Our heifer calf, Sweetie Pie, for her part has been slowly separating herself from the sheep with whom we kept her while bottle feeding her. These days, she is beginning to overnight with the big cows and her playmate, the young bull calf, and sometimes even bypasses her evening bottle. She is working out her place (and her identity) within our small cow herd. And our aging wether, Orhan, who felt somewhat resentful that a gaggle of aging humans made fun of his slow and deliberate “old man” walk at the back of the flock as it charged into the barn for grain, continues to take his role as head sheep quite seriously, making sure to call out for any stragglers as the flock moves about throughout the day.
The turkeys, for their part, were quite taken with our human litany of call and response, so much more individuated than theirs. They found something quite poetic in the give and take of the human flock, and the cackles and evil giggles we all gave off as our sibling-like repartee flew about. They correctly noted that the meaning of the specific words we used seemed irrelevant to our banter, as it was really in the tone, the pace, and the simple fact of directing sounds toward one another that our true message was conveyed. How else to explain a group that argued forty years ago over which state had the prettiest license plate, and now argues over whether numerators can have meaning in the absence of denominators. The substance of the speech among this human flock is largely nonsense, the turkeys discerned, realizing astutely that it was the social bond communicated by the bantering dance itself where meaning could be found.
What the animals found most striking, however, was our eating habits. From the nearby pastures, they could hear our dinner preparations, as we vigorously debated such matters as when to put the corn cobs in the boiling water, where on the grill to place the zucchini in relation to the burgers, and what to drizzle on top of the tomato plate. They congratulated themselves on not having to engage in such preparations themselves, having evolved a perfect system that avoids all such contention–using humans to undertake all that preparation for them.
They further congratulated themselves on their more evolved eating habits. Hearing the wild conversation booming out from the porch while we ate, in which we recalled memories as trivial as the spaghetti sauce recipe we repeatedly cooked forty years before, along with the more momentous weddings and deaths, the barnyard animals wondered at why we did not have the manners to hold conversation only at conversation time and eat in silence at meal time. The only bleating, squealing or mooing one hears from the animals as they eat was the sound of protest if another member of the group impinges on their food supply. Otherwise, livestock mealtime is a time of silent munching, followed by silent communal digestion. Conversation, be it the call and response of the turkeys or the bleating of the sheep, is reserved for other occasions. Our livestock, hoping to gain insight into their own natures by observing ours, agreed that both the debates about food preparation and the dinnertime banter must be mechanisms the human herd uses to reinforce its social organization, and cement the allegiances that bind them together.
Their insightful conclusion is undoubtedly right. Preparing food together knits the group into a cohesive working unit. The dinnertime banter establishes us within our social place and conveys the affection, the rivalry, and the roles of the individuals in the group. These goals can’t be accomplished when individuals graze alone at random times out of the refrigerator. Preparing and eating our meals together is how we create family. And sustain it.
Turkana Farms likes to feel that it sometimes helps in sustaining this important cultural process.